February 13 2003
AROUND THIS TIME three years ago there was
talk that the Waterhouse report, containing the long-awaited findings of
the North Wales Tribunal of Inquiry, might be published on 14 February. In
the event it would seem that the Government recognised that Valentine's
Day was not the appropriate time for such a report and it in fact appeared
on 15 February 2000. Saturday will therefore mark the third anniversary of
the report's publication. It is an anniversary whose significance needs to
be pondered on.
The appearance of the report was the occasion for massive press
coverage, with nearly all national newspapers giving the story most of
their front page and many inside pages as well. The bleak one-word
headline of the Daily Mail's front page on 16 February 2000 was
BETRAYAL. Over a photograph of four very young children, the
newspaper printed the following 'strap': 'These four brothers were
horrifically abused in care. Two were to die in torment. Yesterday an
inquiry concluded that, in all, 650 children - appallingly let down by
social workers - were victims of Britain's worst-ever paedophile scandal . and that 40 of the monsters are still at large.'
This Daily Mail front page encapsulated the distortions with which
the story was widely reported. Although the complainants were mostly
adults in their thirties, making allegations about their time as
adolescents, the Mail implied that they were very young children;
it also implied that the alleged abuse led to a number of tragic deaths
although in fact there was no evidence for this and the Waterhouse report
itself had been unable to substantiate such claims.
Inside the paper, Bryn Estyn, the Wrexham Community Home supposed to be
the centre of a network of abuse, was presented as 'the Colditz of care'.
Journalist Rebecca Fowler's story began in the following terms:
As the iron gates clanked shut behind them and they looked up at the
forbidding mansion for the first time, the boys who were sent to Bryn
Estyn children's home in North Wales were all gripped by the same thought.
This was the end of the world.
And it was. For more than a decade it was at the centre of Britain's
biggest child abuse scandal where the corruption cast a shadow so evil it
shattered the lives of a generation of children.
Having recounted a catalogue of physical and sexual abuse alleged by
one particular witness the story ends with these words: 'Imagine his
story multiplied perhaps 200 times and you get an idea of the hideous
scale of the scandal.'
In fact, the witness in question was Steven Messham, none of whose
allegations have ever been substantiated or even brought before a criminal
court. When one of his most serious sexual allegations was examined during
a celebrated libel trial in 1994 it was shown under cross-examination to
be a transparent fabrication and the jury declined to believe it.
Any sober assessment of this witness's testimony suggests that he is given
incurably to fantasy and fabrication. However, it is not simply the
Daily Mail which should bear responsibility for gravely misleading its
readers. The North Wales Tribunal itself was at least partly responsible
for the story which appeared. For, by endorsing (with reservations)
Messham's overall credibility, the Tribunal was implicitly inviting just
the kind of press attention - and credulity - which this witness's wild
claims duly received.
How then should we, three years on from its publication, assess the
overall achievement of the Waterhouse report? One intriguing perspective
was provided last year by the case of Michael Barnes, a senior residential
social worker in North Wales who had many allegations made against him and
was the subject of adverse comment in the report.
Barnes, who had already been suspended by his employers, (now
Wrexham County Borough Council),
was subsequently dismissed on the basis of the Tribunal's findings and an
NSPCC report which had accepted these. He was then listed by the Secretary
of State as somebody who was not considered fit to work with children.
Yet the allegations which had been made against Michael Barnes were false.
He was disturbed to find there was no possibility of appealing against the
findings of the Tribunal itself. However, it was possible to appeal
against his blacklisting by the Secretary of State and this is what he
did. Not only did he succeed, but he was also successful when he appealed
against his dismissal and has now been re-instated in his original post.
In conducting his lengthy challenge to the series of injustices inflicted
upon him, Michael Barnes has effectively demonstrated that the findings of
the Tribunal about his case were wrong in practically every detail.
In an article which has massive significance for social workers generally,
and which strikes at the very credibility of the North Wales Tribunal and
its report, he tells his story
We should have no doubt that some sexual and physical abuse did
take place in care homes in North Wales. That this was the case should be
both a matter for shame and a reason for redoubling vigilance and
But the portrait of homes such as Bryn Estyn contained in the Waterhouse
report, and embroidered upon by the national media - including broadsheet
newspapers and Private Eye - is both grotesque and false.
If we take the advice of journalist Rebecca Fowler and multiply two
hundred times the horrific story recounted by Steven Messham, we are
simply led deeper into the realm of fantasy and fabrication in which that
story has its origins. But if we multiply the story of Michael Barnes many
times, we might well approach a little closer to the truth.
The fact, highlighted by his story, that there can be no appeal against
the findings of a Tribunal of Inquiry, is, or ought to be, a matter of
serious concern. Quite apart from anything else, as the second Bloody
Sunday Tribunal is currently illustrating, the introduction of such a
right of appeal might save many millions of pounds of public money.
But, more importantly still, it might help to close down a significant
avenue for grave miscarriages of justice. One particular reason for saying
this is that there is arguably a causal relationship between the legal
over-protection of any tribunal of fact and the tendency of such a
tribunal to substitute its own prejudices or speculations for the facts it
is supposed to be establishing.
It should be noted that in the ordinary judicial process not even judges
are exempt from having their conclusions examined by a higher tribunal.
This was a point which Mr Justice Eady himself made during the course of
the ruling on malice which he delivered at an early stage of the
Shieldfield libel trial last year:
In due course I shall have to decide, at the end of this
case, after the evidence is heard and the arguments deployed, whether the
truly appalling allegations against these claimants of wicked child abuse
are true or false. When I come to make that decision, whenever it is and
whichever way it may go, I shall set out my reasoning as fully and clearly
as I can. I have no doubt that my reasoning will be scrutinised and
subjected to criticism either in the Court of Appeal or by others who may
be interested in the subject matter. That is as it should be. That is what
judges are for. In my case it is simply part of the judicial function that
is my job. The Review Team, however, undertook their task voluntarily. For
all I know their motives may have been of the highest; in other words to
serve the public interest and to protect children in the future. But of
course we do not have a system where people can be condemned as guilty of
any serious criminal offence let alone rape and mass child abuse without a
trial and behind closed doors. Anyone who arrogates to themselves such a
responsibility must expect, if it is necessary, to have their reasoning
processes and their motives brought into the sunlight and subjected to
close scrutiny. In my judgment here it is necessary.
The members of the Review Team themselves, however, had clearly not
expected that they would ever be brought to account in this manner. This
was acknowledged by Mr Justice Eady: 'I have little doubt that the Review
Team thought they could publish more or less whatever they wanted about
Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed with no consequences adverse to
themselves . Not only did the Team have advice about qualified privilege,
but they almost certainly assumed (as would the Council members and
officers) that this beleaguered pair would not have the resources to claim
legal redress' (para 1396).
The clear implication of these words is that one of the possible
consequences of cocooning the members of inquiry teams by the granting of
qualified privilege is that they may construe such privilege as a licence
to distort or misrepresent the evidence before them in order to bolster
conclusions which have been arrived at more by prejudice than by due
It would seem reasonably clear, however, that this danger attaches not
only to local authority inquiries, but also to Tribunals of Inquiry, where
the possibility of appealing against findings of fact was ruled out
following the recommendation of Lord Salmon. (Lord Salmon took the view
that a Tribunal of Inquiry was an instrument of government and that as
such it would be ineffectual if its findings were not seen as having
It is highly unlikely that the hearings presided over, and the reports
compiled by Lord Widgery for the first Bloody Sunday inquiry, and by Sir
Ronald Waterhouse for the North Wales Tribunal, would ever have taken the
form they did had the two chairmen believed that the conduct and
conclusions of their Tribunals might eventually have been scrutinised by a
IN THE ABSENCE OF such scrutiny by a court
, some independent examination by a writer is perhaps the best
alternative. A year or so ago I planned to bring out a small book about
the North Wales Tribunal. For various reasons this book will not now be
appearing. But to mark this third anniversary of the publication of the
Waterhouse report I have put online some substantial extracts from the
long essay which was to form the basis of the book. For these extracts,
It is a matter of some interest that, as this critique of the Waterhouse
that Newcastle City Council is making strenuous,
though not wholly successful attempts, to recall the copies of the Review
Team's defamatory report which were distributed on its publication in
1998. Now that Waterhouse's findings on Michael Barnes have been shown to
be untrue, will Her Majesty's Government make similar efforts to recall
and pulp the thousands of copies of the Waterhouse report that were
distributed in its name?
Perhaps not surprisingly no such plans have yet been announced.
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